Thursday, June 30, 2022

HGB Ep. 441 - Weems-Botts House

Moment in Oddity - Laos Plain of Jars

As spooky weird kids, some of us may have already heard of the "Laos Plain of Jars". This site located in Northern Laos is comprised of more than 2,100 megolithic stone jars. British anthropologist Ursula Graham Bower had lived with the Zeme Naga people in the 1930's. According to her reports, this tribe believed the jars to have been made by the lost Siemi people. French researcher Madeleine Colani concluded that the jars were part funerary practices with remains, burial goods and ceramics being found around these jars. Some of the one to three meter tall carved containers weigh up to 14 tons. They are sometimes found alone or in groupings of up to several hundred. The stone structures are mostly made of sedimentary rock and are interspersed throughout the Xieng Khouang plain in the Laos Highlands. They are today, a popular tourist destination as Site #1 of the UNESCO World Heritage jar sites. There are many unique methods of burial throughout history, but using 14 ton jars made of stone certainly is odd.

This Month in History - Penny Postcard Approved By Congress

In the month of June, on the 8th, in 1872, Congress approved the penny postcard. This new legislation was in response to public demand for an easier way to send short notes. From 1872 until 1898 the Postal Service monopolized the pre-stamped postcards. This is until Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, which gave private publishers the right to print postcards. These cards could be mailed for one cent vs the two cent fee to mail a letter. This era of cards only allowed for messages to be written on the front and nothing on the back. After March 1, 1907, the back of postcards was divided in half. The right side was to contain the mailing address and the left side was reserved for messages. At this time, the front space which had been used for messages in the past, disappeared. The first photos appeared on postcards in 1939 and while their production slowed during WWII, after the war the postcard became a tourist staple. And I don't know about all of you, but postcards give me a feeling of nostalgia. And hey, after 150 years since the postcards inception, it has only gone up in mailing cost to .40 cents, although it's waiting for the approval to jump to .44 cents.

Weems-Botts House (Suggested by: Katelyn Curry)

The Weems-Botts House is located in Dumfries, Virginia. This town used to have a big reputation, rivaling towns like Philadephia and Boston, but today it's just a little knockabout place. The house is a museum that is considered one of the most haunted locations in the state. The Merchant Family were the last private owners of the house and they still seem to be here. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of the Weems-Botts House!

Algonquian-speaking tribes lived along the Potomac River and a Patawomeck village was near Quantico Creek before English settlers came to the area of present-day Dumfries. A man named Richard Gibson was one of the first settlers to the future Dumfries, Virginia, which was known as Quantico at the time. He built a gristmill on Quantico Creek in 1690 and his success brought more settlers who built other mills, warehouses and a customhouse. The town of Dumfries was founded in 1749 by John Graham and he named it after his birthplace in Scotland, Dumfries. This makes it the oldest continuously chartered town in Virginia. Originally, Dumfries just covered 60 acres, but it became the second leading port in Colonial America. Dumfries grew to have taverns and ordinaries, schools, a theater/opera house, a granary, a bakery, a shipyard, race track, and a ferry to Maryland. This little port rivaled the likes of Boston and New York. The main commodity the town dealt with was tobacco and it was so prominent that tobacco notes (promissory notes calculated by the quantity and quality of the tobacco) were the main form of currency. When shipping turned more towards wheat and sugar, the shipping canal filled with silt and the Revolutionary War started, Dumfries prominence waned and today it remains a small town with a population around five thousand.

There was a church established here even before the original grist mill was built and this was known as Quantico Church. A house was built to serve as the vestry for the church. This was bought by Parson Mason Locke Weems in 1798 after he migrated from Maryland to use as his bookstore. Weems was born in 1759 in Maryland to Scottish parents. He originally studied medicine, but had a religious conversion and decided to study theology in London. He became a minister and wrote the first biography of President George Washington shortly after the President's death. He came up with the Cherry Tree story. Weems was first ordained into the Episcopal Church, but he started leaning towards the beliefs of the Methodists, so he was required to resign as rector. He then began a traveling ministry and he sold books. He married Frances Ewell in 1795. While Weems owned the bookstore, he wrote that biography on Washington. Frances' father died in 1805, leaving her mother in debt and the couple lent a considerable sum of money to her mother. In 1806, the couple moved into the Ewell estate known as the Bel Air Plantation as a partial repayment of the debt. Weems had already sold the bookstore to attorney Benjamin Botts in 1802. 

The house would become Botts law office. In 1807, he defended former Vice President Aaron Burr in his treason trial. It was the only time in US history that such a high-level government official was tried in court for treason. Burr was acquitted, but his political career was over after this trial. Botts died in the Richmond Theater Fire that happened on December 26, 1811. As was the case with these fires in early theaters, the audience thought the fire was an effect until one of the actors ran on stage and shouted that the house was on fire. There was only one exit for the bulk of the audience and the building was engulfed in 10 minutes. Seventy-two people died, including Benjamin Botts. The Governor of Virginia also died as did the head of the Bank of Virginia. And there were the families, slaves, freedmen and the rich and poor of the city of Richmond. Most of the remains were put into two large mahogany boxes and all the bodies were buried in a mass grave where the orchestra pit had been. The Monumental Church was built on top of the charred site.

After Botts and his wife died in the fire, the property title was sold for taxes in 1835 and three years later repurchased by four of Botts' sons. The property passed through hands for a while and was then purchased by the Merchant family in 1869. The family consisted of Richard and his wife Annie and their two daughters, Violet and Mamie. There had been two sons too, but they died young. Mamie had epilepsy, which was misunderstood in the mid-1800s. The seizures were treated as some kind of demonic possession or mental illness. The Merchants were ashamed and kept Mamie from going out of the house, even locking her in her room, so that no one would see her having a seizure. Eventually, Mamie died during a seizure in 1906. Richard died just six months after Mamie, leaving Annie widowed. Violet had moved away to start setting up a home with her fiance. Annie demanded that Violet return home to help care for her. Violet did as her mother asked, but she would pace the floors and weep every night. This lasted for 46 years until Annie died in 1952. Violet stayed on at the house until she died in 1968.

The Town of Dumfries acquired the house in 1974 and leased it to Historic Dumfries Virginia, Inc. That organization restored the house and opened it as a museum. Today, the house is covered in weatherboards and the gable roofs are covered with sheet metal and there is a one-story porch across the entire front of the house. The original structure was a story-and-a-half with a single 11' by 16' room on each level. The front section of the house had a single, louvered casement shutter. In the mid-19th century, a two-story wing was added. This has a closed winding staircase. In the twentieth century, a one-story kitchen was added behind the eighteenth-century wing and a one-story wing was added to the west end of the mid-nineteenth century section.

When people started touring the museum, reports of haunting activity started surfacing. A closet door in a bedroom would open by itself almost every day and the windows opened and closed on their own. Books would fly off the shelves on their own as well, literally appearing to be thrown with force. This was thought to happen because a doorway was plastered closed and the bookshelf was put in front of it. Civil War spirits were seen behind the house. The creepiest unexplained thing was a creepy doll that would move around the parlor on its own. The activity brought so much attention to the house that in 2004 they introduced ghostly lock-ins during the month of October. 

Two of the spirits in the house are thought to be Mamie and Violet because of the unhappy lives they lived in the house. Their father Richard is thought to be at the house as though he is protecting his daughters in the afterlife. The room upstairs where Mamie was locked away has strange sounds that emanate from it when no one is in the room. Some of these sounds include loud female screams. A marine Scout Leader brought his Boy Scout troop to the house one time and he had some kind of panic attack in Mamie's room. He started sweating and went pale. His eyes widened in terror and the tour guide asked if he was alright and all he managed to blurt out before running out of the house was, "She...she needs her rocking chair!" The guide finished her tour and found the leader outside. He refused to go back in the house. Staff later found out from a living family member of the Merchant family that Mamie had a rocking chair in her room that she always sat in while she watched the world outside of her window. The curtains flutter in this bedroom when the window isn't open and a picture flies off the wall on occasion. And speaking of windows, one of them in Violet's room opens and closes throughout the day and night. Staff will find the window open when they are beginning their shift in the morning and they know they closed it the night before. A group of high school students were visiting the house and one was speaking to the docent next to this window. The window opened, shocking the student and the docent told her it was the ghost saying hi. The window later closed itself.

The Executive Director of the museum is Lisa Timmerman and she told journalist Mia Brabham in 2021 some of the experiences that she has had for an article in the Prince William Living Magazine. She said, “Back in November of 2019, I had Jeff [Seguin, an independent paranormal researcher and the museum’s volunteer paranormal tour guide] stop by the historic home to investigate an odd security alarm fault that occurred mid-week, around three in the morning. One of our front door alarms had been triggered, and I noticed that a colonial-style latch on the inside of the door seemed to have been bent. I thought that perhaps something tried to push the door open from the outside. While we were standing in the Colonial vestry room discussing what may have occurred, Jeff stopped our conversation and directed my attention to the sound of footsteps walking across the wooden floor in the bedroom directly above us. It was as if someone was walking across the Colonial bedroom — toward the stairs — to eavesdrop in on our conversation. We quickly went upstairs, but the room was empty." Also, “Two years ago, a guest on this [ghost] tour claimed she was gently ‘pushed’ on her lower back while seated on the floor of the Colonial bedroom with her back to the staircase. She described the non-threatening touch as ‘purposeful’ and with a tingly, static electricity quality to it. Perhaps someone on the staircase was trying to get her attention!”

And she also shared, "In September of 2019, I was wrapping up a final tour in the far side of the house. This area was once an exhibit area for a Dumfries historian, Lee Lansing. As I was chatting with the guests in this exhibit room, I felt a slight tug on the back of my jacket sleeve. It was odd, but [I] think it was a bug. The same happened a few weeks ago when I felt something on my foot. Although I could not find the bug, I did jump and slightly yell." Um, yeah, cause bugs normally tug on shirts. And there was also this story, “One story we tell on our Ghost Tour is of a guest who stopped by our Annex building. She was impressed with a costumed Civil War re-enactor she had met in [Merchant] Park. The museum staff quickly rushed to the windows, but we could not find the person she was referring to. We informed the guest that we did not have any costumed re-enactors and she was very puzzled. Apparently, she had a conversation with this individual, but when the topic of how modern-day events could be compared to events that occurred during his time period, the soldier had an unusual reply. According to the guest, he said, ‘I don’t know too much about that, but the nice ladies in the museum could probably answer that for you.’”

The Dead Files came to the museum in 2017 after an employee asked them for help because the activity had ramped up enough that she was getting afraid to come to work. Some of the activity had even gotten physical. The employee had her hair yanked by something she couldn't see. This employee told Steve that she saw a full-bodied apparition come into the house through a side doorway, walk down the hallway and he disappeared into the kitchen. She took Steve into the park near the house and told him about a terrifying shadow figure she had seen in the park. It stood at least seven feet tall with very long arms and legs, but it moved in a weird way, almost like a spider. Amy immediately picked up on a man calling himself Uncle Bob and she felt like he was a former owner. He let Amy know that he didn't like the changes done to the house. He messes a lot with light fixtures to indicate his displeasure. Amy also picked up on the spirit of a Civil War soldier.

Joanne had been the Director at the house for eight years when Dead Files came. She told Steve that she had been on the verge of dying. Amy on her side of things picked up that the house was making people sick, causing them to be very tired and causing potassium issues that could cause heart problems. Was this what had made Joanne sick? Joanne also witnessed her son getting thrown down the stairs. A volunteer named Natalie told Steve that she had seen the floating head of a slave in the house. She feels pressure sometimes on her chest in the Annex Building and it makes it hard to breath. She felt cold hands go through her hair and she's been touched on her arms and legs by something she couldn't see.

Other haunted hotspots in Dumfries are Dumfries Cemetery and Dumfries Elementary School. These are included on ghost tours and sometimes even the hunts. A teacher once told a docent at the museum that she and the children in her class had seen the spirit of a child in the schoolyard. One student looked out the window and saw her and after yelling out about it, the entire class was looking out the window and saw the child in a long skirt that seemed to be from Colonial times. The teacher managed to get the students all back in their seats and when she glanced outside again, the child spirit was gone.

Dumfries is a small town, but clearly has a big reputation when it comes to spirits. Is the Weems-Botts House and surrounding area haunted? That is for you to decide!

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